Welcome Wednesday guests for November:
11/05 Maya Corrigan's Five-Ingredient Mystery, By Cook or By Crook.
11/12 Death by Blue Water, a scuba-diving adventure-mystery by scuba-diving author, Kait Carson.
11/19 Susan Van Kirk--Three Can Keep A Secret.
11/26 Tagged for Death, a garage sale mystery by Sherry Harris.

Gloria Alden's latest publication is nonfiction. Boys Will Be Boys: The Joys and Terrors of Raising Boys. Edited by Cher'ley Grogg was recently released and available on Amazon. Gloria wrote three essays and two poems in her chapter included in the book.

Don't miss this month's release of Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays on October 7th, in which WWK bloggers Shari Randall ("Disco Donna") and E. B. Davis ("Compromised Circumstances") have short stories.

KM Rockwood's
short stories will appear in two anthologies released in October. They are: "The Lure of the Owl" in Swamp Mansion and Other Dark Stories, to be released as a ebook, and "Aunt Olga and the Werewolf" will be included in the third Creatures, Crimes and Creativity anthology release by Intrigue Publishing. at their conference in October.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

The F Word


by Ramona DeFelice Long

In May, I had the pleasure of teaching “The Basics of Mystery Writing” at the Pennwriters Conference. It was my first time on the faculty, and I am always pleased at the leap of faith writers take to attend one of my talks.

A Pennwriters member introduced me. I gave my standard beginning (“Can you hear me in the back?”) and told the group what I planned to speed-cover in the next 45 minutes. Then I launched my opening sally—that I was going to use the F word—and waited for the group’s reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed. Was I, a pleasant looking grownup in casual but professional attire and (because I’m from the South) wearing rose-colored lipstick, going to talk smack? If the group had been cartoon people instead of living people, little balloons would have popped over their heads, saying “Is this a trick?”

Of course it was a trick. When I spoke to elementary school groups, I often introduced my “Life as an Author” talk by saying I was going to speak about words. If those kids had been cartoon kids, their little bubbles would have read, “Boooring.” But then I told them I was going to start by saying a funny word. And I said, “Toilet.” All I had to do then was wait for the eruptions of laughter to die down. Toilet is, indeed, a funny word, particularly to a group of fourth graders.

I didn’t pull the Toilet joke because I wanted to revisit my childhood; I survived middle school and have no desire to go back, thank you very much. Every time I said, “Toilet,” the kids sat up a little straighter and looked at me—a pleasant looking grownup wearing casual but professional attire and rose-colored lipstick—with a bit more interest.

The same applies to a group of writers who hear the phrase “the F word.” The real joke is that, when I announced that the F word in question is Formula, you’d think I had, indeed, dropped a real F bomb.

Many new writers who seek my editing services insist that they want to do something new, break the rules, stretch the limits, fire through the parameters. This is a perfectly fine goal. I like experimental fiction and admire those who try it.

“Agents want something fresh!” “Editors are dying for something different.” These are true statements. However, writing a fresh and different story does not necessarily mean an author must venture outside the standard structure of storytelling.

“I don’t want to write a formula novel.” I hear this and I wonder, why not? What’s wrong with a formula novel, if the elements within—character, plot, voice, setting, theme—are engaging and well done?

In terms of writing, Formula is a word that I think is misunderstood. According to Webster’s Online, one definition of Formula is “a customary or set form or method allowing little room for originality.” That does, indeed, sound limiting. That sounds like every cozy mystery novel, for instance, must drop the body in the first chapter, with subsequent chapters that must include four viable suspects, two red herrings, a shootout, a car chase, a false arrest, a pet cat and at least one good looking Cop Boyfriend.

The truth is, many cozy mysteries do contain most (and sometimes all) of those elements. Why? Because those element work. That’s what readers expect. That’s what readers want.

Words have many meanings. Toilet is funny, but it’s also useful. Formula may refer to the Three Act Structure, Setup-Conflict-Resolution, Rising and Falling Action, Freytag’s Pyramid. These are all types of Formulas. Sometimes they’re call plotting plans or story structures, but essentially, they define the form of the story. There will be an inciting incident, a call to action, setback, roadblocks, mistakes, danger, a climax and a denouement. Those are the inherent parts of what constitutes a mystery novel. There’s no need to fear or diss any of them.

In other words, if the wheel ain’t broke, why reinvent it?

In the past month or so, two of my clients scored with publishers. One sold her first mystery novel, which stuck to the classic Three Act Structure formula. Her novel sold because she wrote an engaging sleuth with a hilarious, but dangerous, set of problems.

Another client wrote a short story that fit the “how-to write a short story” mold perfectly: two appealing characters discover a conflict, one grows, the other resists; there is an epiphany; the characters move apart, changed from where they started out. Nothing particularly new about the form of the story, but it was beautifully written, the situations were touching, and it sold to the first magazine she queried.

Why did standard forms become formulas? Because they worked. Different and new can come from character or setting or plot, but mystery readers like what they like. There are always trailblazers, and it is great if you are one. But it is not necessary for you to be one to get published. The classic form works, and that’s why it’s been around for so long.

For new writers, embrace the formula and experiment with other story elements. If you get frustrated, bogged down or discouraged, you can always cheer yourself up by saying, “Toilet.”

4 comments:

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

Thanks, Ramona.

I took an interesting writing class this summer called the Storymaker. It dissected very commercial movies that did well at the box office. The class taught us about how each genre has specific audience expectations, and illustrated those moments with multiple movie clips. In the second half of each class, we learned how to quickly brainstorm our own story with the 'Formula' guidelines we had been given.

It was amazing to see the 'same' moments pop up in all these fabulous movies. And when they worked, they were magic. When a writer/producer got lazy, the story just wasn't quite there.

So while there is always the need to be unique, I believe you can pull that off within a classic story-telling 'formula'.

Thanks.

Ramona said...

Pamela, this Storymaker class sounds like a good one.

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

It's awesome. Check out the Facebook site at 'How Movies Work'. Or you can check out their site on the web. I'm using their class to write my YA novel. xo,

Polly said...

Very good post, Ramona. The formula doesn't work for me when an author uses the same one in every book. It's okay once, but when you know what's going to happen because of "the formula," that's lazy writing. Romantic suspense is where I see it most, especially where the requisite conflict is concerned. But that's another blog post. :-)